“$150 fine if you drive off track,” read the sign in Queen Elizabeth Park. This came back to me unbidden when the researcher’s vehicle took a sudden left turn right through the high grass, with plenty of Ugandan Kob watching us as we sped by.
The day had not started out like we had hoped. It was Christmas morning, and we expected not to be able to even sign up for the lion tracking experience on a holiday. However, in the Ugandan parks it was business as usual, almost. There was one difference.
Christmas is a family day, so many of the Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers and other workers who were on-duty, just brought their families with them to work. We discovered this when at 7:30 sharp, the researcher we were supposed to be with all day, James Kalyewa, rode up in a car packed with his brother’s family.
James had thought that we would be in a large four wheel drive vehicle, like a Range Rover, and you could see the disdain on his face when he looked into our small RAV 4. He decided to keep riding with his brother, whose truck had a convenient sun roof he could hold his antenna out of in order to find the lion prides. Kicking off his shoes, he motioned for Jim and me to get back in the car and follow him.
The sun was just starting to rise, and the air was still somewhat cool, a perfect time to locate some lions. We drove out on the track that leaves the main road right there at the Kasenyi Gate. After about 15 minutes, and just as Jim and I are commiserating about signing up for this experience on a holiday, James’ brother goes off-road. Jim only hesitated a couple of seconds, and then, with a lopsided grin, off the track we followed. Knowing we were breaking the rules was only one of the reasons our hearts were beating so fast.
We drove and drove into the deep grass where there were no visible tracks. The lions know what they are doing. The jeep in front of us stopped a couple of times for James to take some readings, and finally his arm shot out of the passenger’s window pointing, pointing.
We didn’t see anything at first. Camouflage is an amazing thing. It never ceases to amaze me how such a large animal, and in this case four large animals, could just lie down and disappear right before your eyes. We were almost on top of them, only about eight feet away, when we saw them.
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Why are the researchers collaring lions?
There were three females and one male. The male had a leather collar around his neck. James told us that the collars cost about $200 each and had to be replaced every two years.
Researchers were tracking the lions for a number of reasons, but one big one was that the lion population kept declining and no one knew why. Many were afraid that the canine distemper virus that had affected the Serengeti had made its way to Uganda, so the UWA set up the Uganda Carnivore Program to monitor large predators like lions, leopards, and hyenas. They found out that the virus was not the culprit, but instead the lions were being poisoned by locals who feared for their cattle and other livestock. By continuing to monitor the predators, they have been saving lives.
The four cats we found on our lion tracking experience were lying in the grass, with a few splatters of blood on their fur, so it was obvious they had just eaten. Looking for the kill, we found a bloated hippo carcass that had been breakfast. James was a little perplexed how the hippo got so far from the water. As far as we could see there were no other hippos in the vicinity.
The lions got up, walked around our cars, and then lay down again. They weren’t too worried about us being there, and didn’t seem inclined to go anywhere else. We stayed and watched them for a good forty minutes before starting our engines and taking off to other parts of the park.
We saw plenty of lions in Queen Elizabeth Park. In the southern sector, called Isasha, the lions climb trees and hang out there during the day. We drove out there a few times, because in one tree there would be four to six lions just lying on the branches. They love to get out of the sun in the wide-spread Sycamore Fig trees, and they are pretty used to having a bunch of humans gawking at them all day long.
To do the lion tracking experience and go out with researchers, you must go to the tours office at the park at least the day before. They run almost every day of the year. For the lion experience, we were told we needed our own transportation to the gate but that we wouldn’t need it for the actual experience. However, in the end we did need our own vehicle, so be prepared. According to the most recent UWA tariff sheet, the Lion (Predator) Experience is $150 per person. Tickets and payments must be arranged at the Park Headquarters.
Tracking the tree climbing lions in Isasha can be done easily on a self-drive along the Fig Tree Track. Be sure and follow all of the side tracks off the main track. Look carefully around the trees as you drive around them, the lions can be hard to spot.